In the fall of 2011 I had a “duh” moment. Wile visiting wells drilled in the bush and even in the nearby “suburbs” of Yei, South Sudan, I realized everyone was carrying a cell phone. In many ways cell phones have leapfrogged past the West serving as banks, flashlights, payment devices and yes, even phones!
But where do you charge them in a country without electricity?
I soon discovered that a great deal of time and money was being spent sending batteries and phones into town to be charged. What if we could develop a solar charging station that would be a good business for local people?
In short we did just that and piloted with a young man chosen by his community for his ability and trustworthiness. David seemed promising but made few payments and none in the last year, so I went to repossess the charging station this week.
Here is what happened.
When I arrived at the charging booth, a significant achievement due to heavy rains, I explained to David that he had lost all of my confidence. He has made zero payments even though his booth is very busy. I had given many warnings so this was no surprise. I briefly explained that we would return to take up the booth and got back in my car. That is when I was approached by an elderly man from the community. He asked, “would I consider waiting a day and come back the next morning to meet with community leaders?” It seems the booth had accomplished what we hoped, it was essential to so many people in the community.
The next day under the shade of a mango tree I explained the vision for the charging booth, that this was a pilot and its success could impact many, and that David had not fulfilled his commitment.
The village chief responded with thanks for my patience and an apology on behalf of the whole community for the shame that David had brought on them all. He then proceeded to explain how important the booth had become to the entire community and would I grant them grace? They would like to take over the booth as a community and run it. I explained that I would be happy if they could prove it a success but if this project was to be successful I needed to get my money back in order to invest in future booths. If hey would deposit within 24 hours 500 ssp and then make payments each month for 24 months, we would have a deal.
They again apologized for David who they would deal with afterwards and appreciated my willingness to give the community another chance.
And so we move onward. An agreement between two businessmen actually was not that. In reality in Africa it was an agreement between myself and the community the business would benefit. A perspective change for me, while I knew from comments that this would be the case, I now knew from experience. There are no individuals in Africa outside of the community.
There is something really beautiful about the accountability and growth hat comes from being cared for and guided by a community of elders.